Avoiding the travel photography trap

You know the feeling. You go out there, your camera is in your hands and……nothing. You try and you try again, but still, nothing attracts you. And then you start grumbling to yourself about where you live, and how great it would be to take a plane and leave for Nepal and do some shooting there. This is what I call the travel photography trap, and here's the things I have found that can beat it.



I think when we start seeing our photography faltering, things like cameras and exotic location start looking extremely tempting. I've talked about gear acquisition syndrome before, and here I will try to look at travel photography. At first I think it makes sense, if we find where we live uninspiring, we need to go somewhere else that is exiting. But the problem is, travel photography is only a short term solution for creativity and inspiration.




Why doesn't travel photography work?

Please do not misunderstand me, I LOVE travel photography and travel in general, but as much as I love it, I know that it fails in not being sustainable. Here's what I mean:


Anyplace in the world, however exotic and exiting will eventually become dull and boring. So if travel photography was a solution to making better images, it's a short lived one because in essence it is only prolonging the first problem.




Say you live in NYC and you are bored with it, you go to Paris, you will also eventually be bored with in, then you go to Malaysia, again, you will be bored with it and so on and so forth.  That's why I say it's not sustainable, you have to keep on traveling in order to keep the interest. Plus travel photography can only happen while traveling, and that is usually not a large amount of time.


How long does it take to be bored?

So. The problem of travel photography is that you will eventually get bored, but the question is, how long does it take for you to become complacent with a new location? Quite frankly, I've wanted to write this article for a while now, but I wanted to create a little experiment beforehand.


But first, here was my original finding: Having experience moving and traveling around, I believe 3 days is about the amount of time that is needed for the interest factor to start sharply declining, to be completely down by about 10 days.




So, in other words, travel in a new place, after 3 days it starts being boring and you lose the sense of wonder, after about 10 days it's pretty much gone. My experience at least.


Now, for that experiment…..I've always dreamed of visiting Japan ever since I was a teen. Thanks Dragonball and Anime. And now, after more than a decade and a half, I've finally visited it, and my experiment was this: Would I lose the sense of wonder after 3 days, knowing full well this has always been my dream country?


Short answer? Yes. I've waited more than 15 years to go there, the wonder was drastically lost after 3 days. So, how long that it takes to be bored with a place? Based on my experience, I'd say 3 days. The place is still somewhat interesting but drastically less so.



The irony of Travel Photography


But I think the irony of it all is, where you live is most likely “travel” for someone else. Pick a dream destination to photograph in your mind, that country is “normal” for someone else. When I tell people in Korea that I lived in Fort Lauderdale, one of their first questions is, what the heck are YOU doing in Korea? Seems like the grass is ALWAYS greener elsewhere!




Why everything eventually gets boring

I think it's a fact that it is human to become used to his surroundings, but WHY? I believe that things lose their interest because of how the brain is designed. I think lost of interest is simply due to the brain's capacity to use shortcuts.


Here's what I mean: I gave my kids a computer keyboard with some software to lean how to type. When they first started they scanned the whole keyboard until they finally see the desired letter and they press it. If you think of the brain as a processing machine that processes information, that activity is costing a lot of processing power. The brain is fully engaged and has no more processing power left for anything but the task at hand.




But now, as the kids get used with typing on the keyboard everyday, they will get used to the placement of the keys. The brain, in order not to use all the processing power will pass the key placements on to the subconscious mind. So eventually there will come a time where they will know every placement of the keys and won't even need to look at the keyboard.


Think of how hard it would be to have to be conscious of everything, you would need to be conscious of breathing, and even walking! you would be overloaded. Your ability to walk without thinking is because your brain passed that onto the subconscious, as something to be expected, therefore there is no need to be conscious of it.


Everything eventually gets boring because the brain has analyzed it and is deemed not necessary to be conscious of it. I remember my first bus ride to go to the language school in Korea. The ride took an hour and it seemed so long I believed I would never get out.




The reason was because I was conscious of everything that was in front of my eyes. I mean, everything was new, my brain was absorbing everything and looking at all the stores, the roads, the layout. Fast forward a month of daily bus rides, I am only vaguely conscious of entering the bus and leaving it. I couldn't tell you anything about the bus ride itself. Because the brain knows what to expect. I get out of my house, I know what's on the left, right, forwards, etc.


Which comes to the main point: You and I are functioning on auto pilot most of the time. Travel photography forces you out of autopilot mode because it's something the brain has never seen and needs to process, but eventually even those new sights will become a part of your subconscious and you are right back in autopilot mode. The brain does it's job of saving processing power, we as photographers lose our ability to see images.


The trick then is to simply go out of autopilot mode and to be conscious of your surroundings in order to see things as interesting again.



Being conscious of your surroundings

The difference between the guy that has roamed the same streets for years and a traveling shooter that just landed there is simply one of consciousness. It's the same world and location they share, but the traveler is conscious of everything because everything seems new.




So, the next time you find yourself saying something along the lines of “Where I live is boring”. It might be because you are not conscious enough of your surroundings, things have become routine, and reminding yourself to stop and pay attention is usually what you need to start seeing again.




It's all about forcing yourself to be present in the here and now, to be mindful of your surroundings. So, next time you go down a well travel path, remember to get out of autopilot mode and see things with an observant eye. Noticing the shadows, light, forms, etc that were once glossed over by your mind who deemed it already analyzed.

Jumpstarting creativity

You've probably never seen the world like this:




Isn't weird to look at something you know so well at a different angle? Sometimes appreciating your own place can come from looking at it from a different perspective. Maybe that means looking at it from other vantage points but also trying new things, from color to black and white and vice-versa. It's all about forcing the brain to go out of auto-pilot mode.




Beauty of the mundane


Lastly, as inspiration, I would like to offer two shooters to check out, the first is Lynn Roylance who made some nice work just limiting himself with around is house, and Tchad Blake, he lives on a farm. Here's a few of my images made in quite mundane circumstances:













Again, I got not problems with travel photography! I love traveling and I love travel photography, and if you can…travel all you can! The only thing with travel tough, is not to see it as a sort of saving grace for your photography, that will only work for a little while, but afterwards it's back to square one, because we either leave the magical place or we have to go back to where we live.


I think a better approach is to force ourselves to be ever observing, to push out brain out of autopilot mode, so that we can be more conscious of our surroundings. Did you ever travel and found it boring after a few days? Let me know in the comments! Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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10 thoughts on “Avoiding the travel photography trap”

  1. Hi Olivier
    great post, we were discussing this by mail just the other day…
    It’s funny, though, I get to the same conclusions from the opposite side: to me, travel photography is MORE difficult that back-at-home photography.
    It is precisely the sense of increased stimulation, the attraction to novelty that in my experience makes photography in unusual location difficult for me.
    In the first couple of days in a new location, the eye gets constantly pinged by ‘wow’ factors, while at the same time the brain has not yet processed the spirit of a place. Which means two things: shooting too much, just because the eye triggers the shutter, and not shooting in a manner consistent with one’s style, because the brain cannot yet ‘see through’ the surface to identify the subjects…
    I like to think that street photography is more than just shooting people and objects in the street. To me, street photography is to try and capture the spirit of a place, or rather to express how a place resonates with the photographer’s spirit. Neither is possible when you have not ‘digested’ a place yet, and allowed it to settle more deeply into one’s soul…
    So, my personal advice is: shoot at home, and when you travel, don’t shoot for a few days. Let the places you visit become almost like home, or at least familiar enough that you can see beyond their shiny new surface!
    Happy shooting to all,

    1. I think it is harder for you because you know to go beyond the first few shots of a new place. I omitted this section from the article, but I do believe that once you set foot in a new location, much of the shots you will make will probably be touristy shots, things are so novel!

      I do think Street is about the aura or spirit of a place too, so the thing I was questioning myself is, what is distinctively japanese? I was trying to figure out how to mix street and something distinctively japanese all the while trying to avoid the touristy shots.

      I think one needs to breathe in a place before really trying to do something, but the downside is, not everyone has the possibility to do long-form travel

  2. Nice article Oliver,

    ”I don’t want to see new things, I want to see things new”.

    I believe it was Ernst Haas.
    All the best!


  3. I see exact parallels with GAS here. We enthusiastically shoot new gear till we get bored then lust after other new gear to excite. Also I think the time to boredom is accelerated due to the internet allowing us to almost know the place before arriving.

    1. Agreed, there are parallels with G.A.S, I think when we don’t want to face up to the fact that we need to make a nice image, a new location or a new camera start looking reaaaaal good 🙂
      I do think you have a large point there with the internet! It’s almost as if you’ve been there without having been there per se.

  4. There are some interesting things in this article. However, getting bored is really a matter of personnality. You get bored after three days in a place, that’s actually when I begin to shoot. Going somewhere and shoot as soon as arrived is more tourism photography to me. I like to not touch my camera for a couple of days in a place (when I can), just so inspiration comes, people begin familiar, etc. But I love travelling (not holiday, several-months-long travels). Spent 12 years in Paris, never been able to take more than a few interesting pics… So I decided to travel for a few years, I’ll see if I get bored easily.
    I totally agree with you conclusion.

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